Together for a better urban future
Originally published on Hassellstudio.com in December 2021
What could the future of cities look like, and how do we plan for it? In London, a group of enquiring minds shared insights and ideas on the subject.
Urban Design London and Hassell joined forces to explore ”New Ideas for an Urban Future” in a full-day conference that was both an affirmation of the city’s continued relevance for people and society, and a call to action, imploring us to think harder and better about how we shape the places that shape our lives.
More than 150 delegates and a dozen speakers shared innovative urban planning tools, creative concepts, and best-practice examples of urban design and place-making projects. Some of the wide-ranging and thought-provoking topics included:
- A ”kit of parts” approach to street furniture that delivers ultra-local experiences (Dan Hill, Director of Strategic Design at Swedish innovation agency Vinnova)
- Embedding experience design as the foundation (not the overlay) for place shaping (Adam Scott, Executive Creative Director of FreeState)
- Creating cross-plot ground floor masterplans for large developments that need a coherent public realm (Hin Sim, Leonard Design Architects), and
- The potential for catalysing a suburban renaissance through community engagement and tactical interventions, increasing both choice and diversity of choice (Dr Elanor Warwick, Clarion Housing Group).
Despite the diversity of ideas and different backgrounds of participants, several central themes emerged to drive future planning.
The new urban future is local-first
In the past two years, COVID-19 has had a wide-reaching impact on people and society. In terms of urban planning, one of the greatest changes has been a re-localisation of daily activities, largely enforced by intermittent work-from-home mandates.
But even before the pandemic hit, it was clear that there was an imbalance in the provision of services between neighbourhoods, at best resulting in long commutes and car dependency, and at worst exacerbating social deprivation and health inequities.
By rewriting the role of the local neighbourhood to serve more functions, within an environment that’s designed for the health and wellbeing of daily users, the new urban future rebalances our relationship with space and time to use less of the former and have more of the latter.
People will be able to access most of their needs close to home, use active and shared mobility modes for most of their trips, and access readily available resources faster, cheaper, and easier than faraway ones. The benefits include a more even distribution of opportunities between neighbourhoods, increased local economic resilience, and reduced carbon emissions from transport and land use.
To unlock this future, we need building regulations that favour mixed-use developments and encourage the co-location of functions (in addition to mitigating the challenges associated with co-location), and transport policies that support a multi-hub network with strong lateral connections.
Local-first is a shift from the monocentric to the polycentric city, and from a centralised to a distributed system of urban services.
“We have a mission to ensure that every street in Sweden is healthy, sustainable, and full of life by 2030.” — Dan Hill, Vinnova
The new urban future is loose-fit
Between the escalating climate emergency, digital technology advances, urbanisation, public health crises, political polarisation, and supply change issues, cities are facing unprecedented levels of disruption, impacting on economic, social, and environmental systems alike.
In this climate of uncertainty, large-scale, fixed components are at greater risk of failure or obsolescence, as evidenced by the empty office districts during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, and by multiple shopping centre closures.
By creating more loose-fit, flexible buildings and places, cities (and their citizens and businesses) will be better prepared to respond, and better equipped to recover. Flexibility creates resilience, and adaptability unlocks long-term prosperity. By being loose-fit, the city’s built assets may also remain in operation for longer, reducing carbon emissions from new construction.
To unlock this future, we need building regulations that prioritise material and functional flexibility, and planning guidelines with an active approach to managing the city’s temporal aspects. Digital technology will be a key tool to help manage use changes in accordance with user needs.
Loose-fit is a shift from the static to the iterative city, and from a closed to an open system of resource management.
“There are a lot of possible futures, and we need to ensure structures that are flexible enough to manage change well.” — Yolande Barnes, Chair, Bartlett Real Estate Institute
The new urban future is activity-based
Cities are for people, and people experience the city by engaging with activities in time and space. When either of these dimensions are out of sync, our experience of the city suffers, and we may find that it is incapable of meeting our needs or satisfying our desires.
For many years, the physical planning and design of space has taken precedence over activities and programming, requiring people to modify their behaviour to fit in, instead of modifying our spaces to fit with people. This approach has often been applied with a focus on large-scale order over small-scale vibrancy too.
By considering the types of activities that people may want to engage with at every scale of the city, the urban experience becomes more multi-layered, rich, and enriching. Any activity may take place at a small scale within the local neighbourhood, while the city as a whole accommodates larger gatherings and destinations of global significance. With this approach, the city can cement its significance as a cultural and economic hub without compromising the quality of life and convenience of its citizens.
To unlock this future, planning has to start with people and life, with recommendations rooted in a profound understanding of local needs in relation to city-wide requirements. Instead of thinking about buildings as containers of functions, and places as links between buildings, both buildings and places become enablers of daily life, in all its facets.
Activity-based thinking is a shift from the planning of the inanimate city to the planning of animate cities, and from technology-led to purpose-led system design.
“It’s about the program of activity, not the physicality of the environment.” — Adam Scott, Executive Creative Director, Freestate
The future is what we make in the present
The new urban future is about planning for the long-term prosperity of people and planet, sustainably delivered and equally shared. And it’s about taking short-term action to bring about these outcomes.
If our current tools for planning, designing, and realising urban environments can’t lead us in the right direction, then we’ll need to invent new ones — and that’s just one of the reasons for joining forces to discuss ideas for an urban future.
At Hassell, we’re looking forward to continuing the conversation with Urban Design London and other collaborators in 2022.